Cytokines are powerful immune modulators that initiate signaling through receptor dimerization, but natural cytokines have structural limitations as therapeutics. We present a strategy to discover cytokine surrogate agonists by using modular ligands that exploit induced proximity and receptor dimer geometry as pharmacological metrics amenable to high-throughput screening. Using VHH and scFv to human interleukin-2/15, type-I interferon, and interleukin-10 receptors, we generated combinatorial matrices of single-chain bispecific ligands that exhibited diverse spectrums of functional activities, including potent inhibition of SARS-CoV-2 by surrogate interferons. Crystal structures of IL-2R:VHH complexes revealed that variation in receptor dimer geometries resulted in functionally diverse signaling outputs. This modular platform enabled engineering of surrogate ligands that compelled assembly of an IL-2R/IL-10R heterodimer, which does not naturally exist, that signaled through pSTAT5 on T and natural killer (NK) cells. This "cytokine med-chem" approach, rooted in principles of induced proximity, is generalizable for discovery of diversified agonists for many ligand-receptor systems.
Keywords: SARS-CoV-2; VHH; bispecific antibodies; cell signaling; cytokine engineering; interferon; interleukin-10; interleukin-2; scFv.
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